Horses

Whitney favorite Quality Road much steadier since Breeders' Cup

He is known as the nation's best older male horse in training thanks to three scintillating triumphs this year, each more impressive than the one before it.

That Quality Road carries such a reputation heading into Saturday's Grade I Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course is a tribute to his sheer ability and his artful handling.

But Quality Road's clash against five rivals in the Whitney is arguably his toughest test since he was slated to start in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park last November.

Famously, the colt had a meltdown while the gate crew attempted to load him, kicking and flailing for several moments before finally being scratched.

The outburst prompted many to slap the head-case label on the Grade I-winning colt, who was forced to miss last year's Triple Crown season because of a foot injury.

But in his three starts this year, Quality Road has been a model citizen in the gate — something trainer Todd Pletcher says he hopes people remember as much as the stellar behavior on the track.

"Unfortunately, he gets a little bit of a bad rap from the one isolated incident at the Breeders' Cup when, you know, part of it was his fault, and part of it was the way he was handled," Pletcher said this week. "But since then, he's been absolutely perfect in every situation and handled everything else that we've done with him since then in great fashion.

"I think some of that high spirit is a little bit exaggerated because of the Breeders' Cup incident. He's actually a very laid-back horse to train."

The easygoing attitude Quality Road displays in the barn does not translate into lazy efforts in the afternoon.

After taking the Grade III Hal's Hope Stakes in his seasonal debut Jan. 3, Quality Road came back the following month and ran "as good as a horse can run," according to Pletcher, when he beat eight others to take the Grade I, 11⁄8-mile Donn Handicap by 123/4 lengths in a Gulfstream Park-record time of 1:47.49.

With an eye toward the later-season goals, Pletcher and owner Edward Evans opted to rest Quality Road for a couple of months and not return until the 1-mile, Grade I Metropolitan Handicap on May 31 at Belmont Park.

The end result was a widening 11/2-length win over fellow Whitney Handicap entrant Musket Man in 1:33.11, which equalled the second-fastest time in the race's history.

"He's such a gifted animal. He's able to sprint; he's able to route," said Pletcher, who took over the training of Quality Road from Jimmy Jerkens last June. "I think he is a better horse than he's ever been right now."

Ideally, the best horses meet when they are at their peaks, and Quality Road could be facing such a rival in the late-blooming Blame on Saturday.

Owned by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, Blame signaled his ability when he defeated older horses as a 3-year-old in the Grade II Clark Handicap in November.

After winning the Grade III William Donald Schaefer Stakes in his 2010 debut on May 15, Blame, trained by Al Stall Jr., became a Grade I winner when he rallied off leisurely fractions to defeat Battle Plan by three-quarters of a length in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Blame's late-running style puts him somewhat at the mercy of whatever fractions Quality Road sets on Saturday. But Stall said he has seen nothing but positive signs.

"The reason I'm looking forward to it is because I think our horse is ready now," Stall said. "We brought him back kind of meticulously, and ... now here's his third time back after an extended layoff, which is supposedly one of his best races in his form cycle.

"It's time to catch the best horses in the country when we're at the top of our game also."

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